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Palin now? Ferraro in ’84? It’s deja vu all over again

By Doug Grow | Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008
From firsthand experience, Walter Mondale’s right-hand man knows that media attention to Sarah Palin’s qualifications stems not from sexism but from her being a new player on the national political scene.

Just like the media spotlight on Sarah Palin, Walter Mondale's 1984 decision to choose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate unleashed a media torrent of attention to learn about her and her views.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Just like the media spotlight on Sarah Palin, Walter Mondale’s 1984 decision to choose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate unleashed a media torrent of attention to learn about her and her views.

Sen. John McCain likely is feeling a little like Walter Mondale felt in 1984.

The word for the feeling?


McCain surely hoped that his vice presidential pick would be celebrated. But he couldn’t possibly have expected that cheers would erupt so explosively as they did Wednesday night at the Xcel Energy Center.

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Dave Lillehaug, a Twin Cities attorney now, watched Wednesday night’s reaction to Sarah Palin and was taken back 24 years to when Democratic Party presidential nominee Mondale named Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.

At the time, Lillehaug was Mondale’s executive assistant.

“In the trade, that’s known as ‘the body man,’ ” Lillehaug said.

Pols of any standing all have a “body man.”  That’s the person who shadows every move of the politician he works for. The body man whisper names of people into the pol’s ear. He keeps the pol on schedule. He does all the little things to make it possible for the politician to smile and warmly shake hands in public places.

So Lillehaug was with his boss throughout the vice presidential selection process in 1984. And he saw, up close, how stunned Mondale was over the first reaction to Ferraro.

“We went to the (Minnesota) Capitol to introduce her,” recalled Lillehaug. “The place was overflowing with people. There was a different feel in the air than we had generated in the whole campaign. Here was a new rock star.”

‘New rock stars’
Sound familiar?

“I remember he stepped up to introduce her and he said, ‘This was a bold choice.’ “

There were incredible cheers. And Mondale repeated himself.

” ‘This is a BOLD choice,’ ” recalled Lillehaug. “It was as if he was surprised by it himself.”

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Beyond political philosophy, there is one substantial difference in how Ferraro and Palin ended up before adoring delegates to conventions. Ferraro was not a surprise. Unlike either Barack Obama or McCain, Mondale had a wide-open vice presidential selection process.

For weeks leading up to the Democrats convention in 1984, there was a steady stream of candidates – sometimes accompanied by their families – pulling into the Mondales’ North Oaks driveway. Reporters were stationed there to see who Mondale was seriously considering.

As Lillehaug recalls it, Lloyd Bentsen, Diane Feinstein, Henry Cisneros and Ferraro were among those who walked up the Mondale driveway. Kentucky Gov. Martha Lane Collins and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis also were under consideration.

That Mondale was considering a woman was big news. Electric news in some quarters.

“He spoke at a NOW (National Organization for Women) meeting and there was this chant, ‘Run with a woman!’ ” Lillehaug recalled.

When Mondale finally did announce his choice, “It was seen as a breakthrough, but not a surprise.”

Given her status as the first woman to run on a major-party ticket for vice president, there were little campaign problems that McCain and Palin likely won’t have to deal with.

“There were a lot of questions of how male and female running mates should relate,” said Lillehaug. “Should they hug? Should they shake hands?”
The little things didn’t matter. Like Wednesday night, the convention hall was giddy when Ferraro was introduced.

“Americans love a new face,” said Lillehaug.

Political ‘new face’ means tough questions
But, there’s a flip side to the excitement of the “new face” business. Reporters are going to ask difficult questions of any newcomer to the big political stage: Who are you? What is your real story?

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Republicans at this convention are convinced  that the media are diving into Palin’s background because she’s a woman and a conservative. Speaker after speaker Wednesday night attacked the “elitist media” for checking out all aspects of Palin’s life.

The only difference between now and 1984, said Lillehaug, is that now, because of the Internet, the questions – and some of the answers – come more rapidly.

Back then, the media vetting of Ferraro was tough – and fair.

The New York Times led the way, digging out stories about the finances of Ferraro’s husband. (They filed separate tax returns.) Ferraro kept promising his returns would be released but then kept delaying. Republicans – and the media – kept attacking.

“It took some of the shine off the campaign,” said Lillehaug, “but enough to make a difference? I doubt it.”

Ferraro finally did hold a news conference in which her husband’s finances were disclosed. Among other things, the disclosures showed that he owed more than $50,000 in back taxes.

Unlike the McCain campaign, which claims it has known everything about Palin’s past that has surfaced so far, Lillehaug said the Mondale campaign was caught off guard by the financial issues.

“I stayed at the (Mondale) house, and every morning I’d put on the coffee and go out and get the New York Times off the driveway,” Lillehaug said.

“We’d both sit there and read the paper and say things like, ‘Oh this is new.’ The problem was that it was hard to answer questions without the facts, and the Times had more facts than the campaign did.”

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Were those media investigations sexist?

Not at all, said Lillehaug. Deep investigations always have been – hopefully always will be – done on any relatively new political face.

“I was at a panel discussion at the Humphrey Institute and Norman Ornstein (of the American Enterprise Institute) said it’s probably harder to get a hotel room in Anchorage than it is in St. Paul,” said Lillehaug.

Those rooms are filled with investigative reporters.

So many similarities.

Ferraro gave the underdog ticket a big lift out of its convention, closing the gap, momentarily, against the incumbent, Ronald Reagan.

But it’s unlikely that Ferraro helped Mondale with the ethnic, Catholic voters who had become Reagan Democrats.

Lillehaug, by the way, doesn’t buy the theory that the McCain campaign was hoping to attract Hillary Rodham Clinton voters with the selection of Palin.

“They hope to shore up their rural, conservative base,” said Lillehaug. “They’ve lit a fire under their base.”

But does the fire last to November?

“In the end, every study shows the vice president doesn’t make a difference,” said Lillehaug.

It certainly didn’t in 1984. Mondale was overwhelmed by the charismatic Reagan, who won all but Minnesota and the District of Columbia.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.